Monday, 30 October 2017

Of Saints and Savages in Early Christianity

In the Introduction to his 2008 monograph, Champlain's Dream, David Hackett Fischer (of Historians' Fallacies fame) writes that he
seeks a path of understanding between hagiographers on the one side and iconoclasts on the other....Two generations ago, historians wrote of European saints and Indian savages. In the last generation, too many scholars have been writing about Indian saints and European savages. The opportunity for our generation is to go beyond that calculus of saints and savages altogether, and write about both American Indians and Europeans with maturity, empathy, and understanding.
The struggle between hagiography and iconoclasm is quite acute in early Christian studies, with a remarkably parallel development: where we once spoke about (literal) saints in the form of apostles and orthodox leaders on the one hand and sinners in the form of Gnostic, Marcionite, Arian, and other heterodox figures on the other, a shift occurred where we came to speak about orthodox sinners and heterodox saints. The Great Church went from being one of the great achievements in human history and its opponents shiftless malcontents, to a great coercive force that compelled obedience and quelled push-back from valiant heterodox dissenters. Even those who in principle defied the saint v. sinner--or orthodox v. heterodox--calculus tended to replicate it, with a perhaps-unconscious tendency to give preference to non-canonical or heterodox works. For instance, for much of the late twentieth-century one would be hard-pressed to find John's Gospel very much cited in historical Jesus studies--despite being the only likely first-century narrative that in any explicit fashion claims to eyewitness status--but one could readily find in the same literature prolific references to the Gospel of Thomas; rather than repudiating the orthodox v. heterodox divide, the heterodox had simply been granted the normativity taken from the orthodox. In truth, this shift was probably necessary: only by thinking about both orthodox and heterodox material through both a hermeneutic of goodwill and a hermeneutic of suspicion could we reach the point that we could write about each with maturity, empathy, and understanding. The trick, I would suggest, is now to ask how we can integrate what has been learned into a single, synthetic understanding of early Christianity.

As I think about what is necessary for writing the history of early Christianity at the level of our own time, I cannot but be reminded of Lonergan's famous argument in Collection that over and against a "solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists," and "a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new development," that "what will count is a perhaps not numerous center, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait." The temptation to err to either right or left is very much before us. On the one hand, we have those who would limit the material to which they attend to the works of the New Testament and the orthodox fathers, pretending that we have not learned that early Christianity was much greater than this. On the other hand, we have those who would ignore the New Testament and the orthodox fathers, dismissing them as ideologically-driven or hopelessly biased. Neither inclination strikes me as particularly fruitful. Each such move is fully a refusal to undertake the pain-staking work of genuine historigraphy.

Concretely, probably no actor in early Christianity was wholly saint or wholly sinner. Paul appears to have been a remarkably successful leader and administrative genius, yet also given to anger--even rage--when his authority was challenged and necessarily given to compromise when he believed himself to be in the right. The emerging Great Church had legitimate reasons to define a normative tradition, but this same normativity also became the grounds for exclusions and schisms that persisted for centuries, even in some cases up until today. Marcion did demand of Christian thought a level of systematization that was relatively rare if not entirely unknown before his time, and such demand probably did help move forward Christian discourse; yet, his particular effort at systematization had legitimate intellectual difficulties that required reasoned repudiation. Valentinus might have been as much the victim of ecclesial politics as anything else, and I suspect that he himself aimed at nothing more than to help elevate the intellectual level of Christian thought. Each of these actors operated at the level of their time, advancing the concrete realities of Christian existence in demonstrable ways even as their imperfections and limitations generated a variety of difficulties (some much more than others, in respect to both advance and difficulty).

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

For the Love of Gord

Gord Downie died today. For more than thirty years, he was the front man of The Tragically Hip, "Canada's band," until they played their final show last August. It is, I think, impossible to describe to non-Canadians what The Hip meant to Canadians, especially Anglo-Canadians. Downie wrote most of their lyrics, and his poetry--because that's what his lyrics really were--perfectly expressed everything that Anglo-Canadians want to be, while never shying away from reminding us of the ways in which we still fell short of our own ideals. His words showed us the people we wanted to be, while revealing the people that we really were. And that combination of ideal and reality was remarkably, profoundly powerful. And more: his life embodied his art. He spent his life advocating for indigenous persons and communities. Indeed, after being diagnosed with the terminal illness that has now claimed his life, he spent much of his remaining time traveling the country, visiting impoverished indigenous communities and advocating on their behalf. During The Hip's farewell concert, a night that was for the rest of us about their legacy and Downie's courage in the face of death, he made it about justice, pointing to Prime Minister Trudeau (who was in attendance) and publicly calling on him to address the ongoing injustices against indigenous peoples here in Canada. He was, quite simply, a good man.

Downie, I think, helps us better understand the thought of another Canadian, namely Bernard Lonergan. Lonergan often spoke of the need for love to transform the human subject into someone who is concerned with the well-being of others. He described such a transformation as religious conversion, and although his focus was upon how this worked itself out in the Christian--and more specifically the Catholic--tradition, he never limited the possibility of such love to said tradition. Indeed, Downie, as far as I know, was not an active member of any religion. Articulated from within the Christian tradition, one might say that he is a testimony to the reality that divine grace is not limited to the walls of any given church. However we might want to articulate it, it is not difficult to see in Gord Downie's life a pattern that Lonergan identified in his work: religious conversion, i.e. falling in love with something much greater than oneself, leads to moral conversion, i.e. the consistent option for values over satisfaction, for the common good rather than parochial self-or even group- interest. And in the final analysis, it was no doubt the presence of such love that attracted people to The Hip.

Monday, 16 October 2017

On Gendered Violence

There is currently on social media a trend wherein women (and to a lesser extent men) write "Me too" in their statuses, as a declaration that they have suffered sexual harassment. This seems an appropriate occasion to think about gendered violence (and let's be clear: harassment is a form of violence--not necessarily physical, for physical violence is just the tip of the iceberg--in that it violates the person's dignity and sense of security) from a Lonerganian perspective. As Lonerganian scholars such as Robert Doran and John Dadosky have said about their own writing, in what follows I make no effort to distinguish between Lonergan's thought and my own, as the former has so fully informed the latter that such distinctions are difficult to make.

Most fundamentally, from a Lonerganian perspective violence--gendered or otherwise--is irrational and thus invariably irresponsible. This differs from force, the application of which can at times be quite rational and responsible. If a man assaults a woman, he uses force to exercise violence against her. This is in all cases irrational and irresponsible. If she uses force to resist, that very conceivable could be a rational attempt to avoid injury to self, and thus quite responsible. But more interesting than this basic set of observations is to ask why someone engages in the irrational and irresponsible act of violence in the first place. In Lonergan terms, this will be inexplicably linked to the idea of alienation.

The sort of alienation of which we speak here is in the first instance an alienation from the best version of oneself, i.e. the version of oneself that is attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible. This supposes a view of the subject as something that can be cultivated. The attentiveness, intelligence, reason, and responsibility in view are not native capacities. Rather, they result from the intentional decision to develop the skills associated with observation (attentiveness), understanding (intelligence), judgment (reason), and decision (responsibility). Alienation is not simply a situation in which one is less than fully attentive, intelligent, reasonable, or responsible, but rather a situation in which one actively (although not necessarily consciously) refuses to develop said skills. Instead, the energy that would otherwise be invested in cultivating these skills is invested in justifying the refusal to do so, as well as finding ways to function despite such fundamental impairments in these basic human capacities.

A person thus alienated from her or his best self becomes inevitably alienated also from reality. Precisely because it is through attentiveness, understanding, judgment, and decision that we come to truly know and fruitfully engage with reality, the person who refuses to cultivate these skills is fundamentally incapable of truly knowing or fruitfully engaging with reality. Such a person experiences the world in a fundamentally distorted fashion. Fear substitutes for attentiveness, suspicion for intelligence, paranoia for reason, aggression for responsibility. Unable to escape a bewildering world from which one is fundamentally and existentially estranged, one irresponsibly sets out to control the many aspects of that world that operate in defiance of one's unreasonable expectations. Such control almost inevitably violates the dignity and security of other persons in one way or another. Sometimes this occurs overtly, through acts of irresponsible force, and sometimes it occurs covertly, through various forms of abuse, neglect, harassment, etc.

Due to sexual dimorphism, which results in the reality that female human beings tend to be on average smaller than male human beings in any given population, it is not at all unusual to find that alienated men frequently engage in aggressive conduct towards women. Precisely because the alienated man (and the move to gender-exclusive language here is intentional) is irresponsible, he has a tendency to prefer the quick and easy path to satisfying his need to control. Indeed, entire societies can (dys)functionally adopt such aggressive conduct as a foundational principle, with cultures that become distorted in order to warrant such social dysfunction. Alienated aggression against women becomes normalized, such that women who resist are deemed to be "bitches" or the like, even as women who do not resist are deemed to be "sluts," etc. But of course all this is just projection: irrational and irresponsible men cannot conceive of the possibility that other persons--male or female--might be more rational and more responsible than they are, precisely because they do not actually know what it means to be rational and responsible.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

From Gospel to Dogma

Last week, I had the honour of delivering a talk at Regis College in the University of Toronto, hosted by the Lonergan Research Institute. This talk focused upon how the gospels were seminal in the development of Christian dogma: not in terms of their content, but rather in terms of the processes that led from Jesus' life to the development of the very form of dogma itself that we find emerging at Nicaea, Chalcedon, etc. Here I drew upon a quote from Lonergan's Triune God: Doctrines (p. 49, with the Latin original on p. 48 opposite; yes, although a twentieth-century thinker, Lonergan often wrote in Latin, specifically those writings that started as lectures delivered at the Gregorian in Rome):
[I]n the ante-Nicene doctrinal movement there were not one but two developments that were going forward. During those early Christian centuries both the trinitarian and Christological doctrines were being developed; but this doctrinal development itself enfolded a second and more profound development in which the idea of dogma itself was developing.
What we find here are what we might term a substantial and a formal development, which operated in parallel. The substantial development was the specific content of the doctrines being developed, while the formal development was the mode of expression by which they were articulated. In effect, we are dealing with the difference between what Christians believed and how they communicated that belief. My primary interest in this talk was upon the latter.

Substantially, there are Christian insights in narrative texts such as the gospels and also in dogmatic texts such as the Nicene Creed. But formally they are very different. The movement from narrative to dogma is a profound one, in which sharpened intellectual clarity is achieved by virtue of intellect's increasing regulation of other aspects of the person when thinking about doctrine, which results in a concomitant decrease in the capacity to communicate to the whole person is decreased. What actually happens in the big picture is that narrative--and also song, and other forms that aim more fully at the whole person--becomes less concerned with communicating intellectual truths as forms more appropriate to the communication of intellectual truths come into their own (and thus we see a keen impropriety in comparing ancient narrative to modern narrative; they actually are not the same animal, as modern narrative is much more specialized than ancient). This much is really derived from Lonergan. My particular interest was in how the production of the gospels themselves contributed to this process.

My argument was quite straightforward. The gospels were developed and written in highly diverse milieus; that such communication in such milieus by necessity requires work to clarify concepts; and that this early work at clarification constituted perhaps the first major Christian movement towards dogma. There is strong reason to think that right from the off the church was at least culturally and linguistically diverse: consider the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, for instance, or that of the Hebraists and the Hellenists in Acts 6. This diversity would have only increased as the church spread into the Diaspora (which actually seems to have occurred quite early, perhaps as a direct result of Pentecost. If not then, certainly by the time Paul was converted, perhaps as little as eighteen months after Jesus died and certainly no more than three or four years). All such cultural and linguistic diversity made posed a sharp challenge to communication (indeed, the account of miraculous inter-linguistic communication at Pentecost makes clear that the early Christians were profoundly aware of this challenge). My argument is simply that this challenge to communication necessitated acts of clarification that would characterize the movement of Christian communication throughout the ante-Nicene period, and after.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Of Snake Oil and Titus Flavius

Someone on FB asked me to comment upon the following article, detailing Joseph Atwill's rubbish hypothesis that the "Story of Jesus Christ was 'fabricated to pacify the poor.'" After my response on FB reached its fourth paragraph, I decided to turn it into a blog post.

At the outset, the article requires a basic correction. It erroneously refers to Atwill as a "controversial biblical scholar." This of course is false. He stands to biblical scholarship, the hallmark of which is a commitment to rigourous historical thought, in much the same way that the snake oil salesman stands to medicine: what he peddles is somewhere between useless and toxic, and among those who know better there is virtually no controversy regarding the matter because we can all recognize pseudo-history when we see it. We can see clearly why this is the case by considering his own words, as quoted in this article.
What seems to have eluded many scholars is that the sequence of events and locations of Jesus ministry are more or less the same as the sequence of events and locations of the military campaign of [Emperor] Titus Flavius as described by Josephus....This is clear evidence of a deliberately constructed pattern....The biography of Jesus is actually constructed, tip to stern, on prior stories, but especially on the biography of a Roman Caesar.
A number of observations here. First, he is committing an elementary error, which sixty years ago Samuel Sandmel defined as "parallelomania." This error consists of the supposition that formal parallels must entail a causal or familial relationship. But correlation is not necessarily evidence of causation or family. One needs to do more than demonstrate such parallels. One needs to explain why we should conclude that the parallels indicate deliberate mimicry.

Second, when thinking about such parallels, the fact that the gospels utilize preexisting elements from prior stories does not mean that what they report is fictitious. In fact, it doesn't mean much at all. Let's say that you tell me a story about your high school prom. Many of the features in that story will be stock. In fact, they will be so stock that I could probably predict with a high degree of accuracy the basic narrative that you will tell. Does it follow that you obviously never had a high school prom? Hardly. While, yes, it could be the case that you are employing such stock story features to bamboozle me, it is at least and probably considerably more likely that in fact you had a high school prom, and that you are simply conforming your story to the standard forms in which such events are narrated. Using a more concrete example, I often tell students about the fact that my first day as a full-time undergraduate student was September 11, 2001. When I tell that story, I intentionally employ many of the stock features of a "starting college" story--how excited I was, how I spent much of the previous week getting textbooks, how early class started that day and how tired that made me--precisely to heighten the impact of the unexpected, namely the way in which the events of 9/11 brought the joy of starting university to an abrupt end. In fact, this makes good cognitive sense. If you use stock features to describe the features of the story that aren't of central interest, that frees you to focus cognitive energy upon composing the feature of the story that are; and conversely, stock features allow me to focus cognitive energy upon that which is not stock and thus (you are telling me) more central. Such stock features facilitate communication in such a way that is probably indispensable. Thinking that the very presence of such stock features is of great historical import probably speaks to an impoverished awareness not just of historical thought but more basically of how humans actually think and communicate.

Third, we can ask whether the parallels he identifies are actually that significant. For instance, Judea is in fact not that big a place, and Galilee (where Jesus spent the bulk of his time) even smaller. Should we be horribly surprised if two persons traveling in the same small area just a few decades apart, using the same system of roads and paths, should go to the same places or even have similar itineraries? Coincidence hardly seems improbable. But that having been said, the accounts in any case actually aren't that coincident. For instance, two of Titus' major victories in the Galille occurred at Taricheae and Gamala: two cities that Jesus is never said to have visited! The only significance here seems to be that, if the evangelists were patterning Jesus' ministry after Titus' campaign, then they seem to have little familiarity with the latter.

Fourth, there is a significant chronological problem. The earliest of the gospels, namely Mark's, probably was written either during or even prior to the Judean War. Certainly, one can make a stronger argument for Mark's Gospel predating the Judean War than vice versa, and the gospel certainly predates Josephus' account of Titus operations during that war. Moreover, the core of Jesus' biography is already found in Paul's writings at least ten years before Titus ever set foot in Judea (in fact, Titus was probably not even a teenager when Paul wrote his earliest letters). As such, given the absolute dates involved, there is good reason to think that the basic outlines of Jesus' biography were in place at least a decade before the Jewish War, and if there is a causal or genetic relationship between Josephus' Jewish War and Jesus' biography empirically it is more likely that Josephus imitated Jesus' biography than the other way around.

Fifth, even if we grant the existence of meaningful parallels between Jesus' biography and Titus' operations in the Judean War, and even if we grant that these parallels indicate that the former mimic the latter, it would not follow that this imitation was carried out by the Romans in order to pacify the Judean population. That part of Atwill's argument seems to be predicated upon neither fallacies nor errors, but in groundless speculation.

As a matter of fairness, we should note that Atwill's hypothesis would perform well if logical fallacies, lack of attention to empirical data, and groundless speculation constitute intellectual virtues. I trust that I might be forgiven for suggesting that they do not.